Good old Scott Rasmussen’s Number of the Day observes that King John signed the venerable Magna Carta 805 years ago today. The beleaguered king signed the great charter essentially at sword point, as his barons had him cornered at Runnymede on 15 June 1215.
The Magna Carta’s history is a fascinating one. King John challenged the document’s legitimacy almost immediately, but his son reaffirmed it. Essentially, the Magna Carta was not a sweeping guarantee of the rights of all Englishmen; rather, it was a guarantee of the rights of a narrow band of English nobility (the aforementioned barons), and that the king was subject to his own laws. No taxes could be levied on the nobility without their consent.
It took another four hundred-odd years, during the events leading up to and following the English Civil War, for the Magna Carta to be applied more broadly. The Stuart monarchs sought to aggrandize the monarchy, turning it into a form of absolute monarchy in the mode of the French kings. Parliament—jealous of its prerogatives—dug up the Magna Carta and used it in its legal case against absolute monarchy.
That interpretation of the Magna Carta was ratified with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament dismissed the last of the Stuart monarchs and invited William and Mary of Orange to become the new King and Queen of England. That bloodless revolution cemented Parliament’s ascendancy, and while the English monarchs retained some powers, they increasingly faded into ceremonial and symbolic roles, while Parliament did the real governing.
When the Americans began demanding their rights as Englishmen in the 1760s and 1770s, they pulled from the parliamentary arguments of the prior century to make the case for their own representation in Parliament. A major source of the American Revolution was that Parliament and King George III refused to acknowledge that Americans enjoyed the same rights as Englishmen, and didn’t need actual representation in Parliament, as they enjoyed “virtual” representation. As King George and his pliant Parliament continued to abuse American rights and privileges, the feisty colonials realized that to secure their rights, they must separate from the very nation that pioneered them.
From the Magna Carta in 1215 to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was a span of 561 years—over a half-millennium.
Dwell on that for a moment: a narrow charter of feudal rights for a handful of English barons morphed, over centuries of conflict between executives and legislatures, into the Declaration of Independence, a sweeping pronouncement of natural rights and man’s essential equality before God. The Declaration also argues for a right to revolution; that is, that people may dissolve and alter their political institutions as they see fit to secure their happiness.
It took the unique cultural and institutional soil of a small island kingdom centuries to cultivate the seed of the Magna Carta into a universal expression of liberty. That is a unique and precious gift.
It’s also incredibly fragile. I point this fact out to my students every year when we discuss the American Revolution. Again, it took 561 years of organic growth and often vicious and bloody conflict to develop our sense of rights and obligations. I’m not sure such concepts could have grown in any other soil. But the beauty of that Anglo-Saxon tradition is that it is freely offered to anyone who will accept it. Liberty might be an Anglo-Saxon invention, but it’s available to all.
But it is fragile, and I fear that the last 805 years of slowly expanding liberty is now threatened as never before. We’ve abandoned a glorious tradition for short-term safety from what is, in essence, a bad flu. We’ve allowed animalistic looters to destroy our nation in the name of identity politics.
Will the tradition of the Magna Carta live to one thousand years? I’m pessimistic about it even reaching 810.
But Americans and our English cousins have faced real existential threats before, some far deadlier in their expression, than our current crisis. There is reason to hope, even though at this dark hour, hope seems to be a luxury.
Regardless, we have a tradition worth defending. Those that seek to reject it and destroy it are welcome to leave. I would encourage them to do so.